Over the past 18 months I’ve had the same conversation with about 10 entrepreneurs looking to start a software-based business.
Each of those 10 people have great ideas and passion for their ventures but they are lacking a technical cofounder or the money to hire a programmer. These entrepreneurs are looking for a technical cofounder and that person who will build a prototype from their idea in exchange for equity in the business. To my knowledge none of these people have been successful and all of their ideas are still on their drawing board. I also don’t think any of them have taken the advice I gave them (but please if you’re out there, email me if that’s not the case and I’d love to write a follow-up post describing your progress!).
I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m the technical cofounder of one startup that I’ve been working on for three years now, and I’ve accumulated many thoughts about this challenge. Having given the same advice ten times, I thought I would commit it to posterity!
As Dave Troy put it, it all boils down to this: “In Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, Cofounders Find You!”
- Know who you are looking for: Sometimes people start off by saying “I need to find a Rails person” – they’ve heard Ruby on Rails is a great framework for building web products, so they’ve pre-decided to use it. But in my limited experience, the tools that get used in your business tend to be the ones favored by the first hire or by the technical cofounder. I’m not saying you should take such decisions lightly or by default, but I’m encouraging you to focus on the cofounder’s personal attributes and not their preferred tools. The right person can learn whatever tools are needed on the fly. You are not looking for a Rails guy or a .NET girl or a Pythonista: you are looking for someone who writes good code but is also versatile, hard-working, and self-directed, who listens well and communicates effectively.
- Go where the software people are. Sounds obvious, right? But if you just do this one tip you will be way ahead of most other people. In Baltimore, I’d start by working at the Beehive coworking space, attending some Bmore on Rails events, searching for other technically-themed meetups, visiting the Node, and getting involved with Betascape. Of course here at Startup Baltimore we have the Startup Breakfasts but I’m not sure how many programmers you’ll find there (it’s still a great way to network with kindred entrepreneurial spirits).
- Start an event or project. Baltimore’s startup community has plenty of room for new leaders. You can attract technical talent simply by being known as an outstanding, generous, helpful business person. There’s still tons of work to do in building up a robust environment for Internet companies here. For some ideas, see these lists of projects that I’d like to see someone taken on.
- Get involved in social media. You want to scale up your search to form as many friendships with software people as possible. There are a ton of programmers in this region and a lot of them are toiling away outside of the communities I highlighted in #2. They won’t even hear about your efforts with #3. But some of them are on Twitter and other platforms. Right now you could sign up for a Twitter account and search for every person in MD, DC, VA, and DE who has the words “software” or “programmer” or “hacker” in their bio. You could start a blog all about your idea and the struggle to bring it to fruition. You might not get a lot of notice right away but over time this will cause hundreds of potential partners to get to know you.
- Get started on a prototype anyway. Even if you meet a qualified, available person, you will have a hard time convincing them to drop everything to work with you. The best way to prove that you are for real and that your idea has legs is to get started now! You could hire someone overseas via Elance. You could find a local freelancer to build something super simple via Craigslist. All you really need is a URL you can give to potential cofounders to check out the kernel of your idea! Read Derek Sivers’ advice on how to do this effectively.
- Have you thought about building it yourself? One of the most bad-ass entrepreneurs in Baltimore is Scott Messinger. He quit his job as a Baltimore City school teacher to create his company, Common Curriculum. He’s not a programmer by trade, but instead of waiting around for a cofounder to appear, he taught himself Ruby, Rails, and MongoDB! Eventually if he does need to hire a programmer to help he’s going to know EXACTLY what to look for.
That’s what I would tell you if we met today to figure this out. Be sure to read Dave’s post for other ideas and further elaboration.
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